March 3, 2010


In the last narrative scene of Andrei Tarkovsky's majestic film Andrei Rublev we are swept onto a desolate landscape; the artist-monk Rublev cradles the very young bell maker Boriska in his arms––a 15th century Russian pieta––consoling him with the first words he has spoken in many years. Boriska, the son of a bell maker, is prostrated by grief, by the fear he's hidden, by the release of pent-up tension: he has directed the work on casting a great bell for months, claiming his father had passed along the secret to make it, but this wasn't true, he was relying on his bit of knowledge and his own instincts; he took on this enormous task, knowing he would lose his life if he failed.

Leading up to the final scene was a remarkable sweep of camera work, high over a Bruegel-like landscape, busily peopled with workers and townspeople coming to see the raising of the great bell; the camera moves across the landscape toward the scaffolding and ends by looking down into it where the bell is being lifted. By showing us this enormous effort at raising and moving the bell, Tarkovsky has emphasized its importance, which is then made even more clear by the rising tension: will the bell ring, or will it be a failure?

What is making art, after all, but a huge gamble, a leap of faith, such as that of the young caster of bells? We never really know if our work has merit, even if it achieves worldly success, but we must carry on regardless. There is a brilliant statement on uncertainty from Willem de Kooning, in an interview with Harold Rosenberg, which I used as a lesson for my students. He imagines himself making a sphere without using a ruler or other instruments:
De Kooning: If you yourself made a sphere, you could never know if it was one. That fascinates me. Nobody ever will know it. It cannot be proven, so long as you avoid instruments. If I made a sphere and asked you, 'Is it a sphere' you would answer, 'How should I know?' I could insist that it looks like a perfect sphere. But if you looked at it, after awhile you would say, 'I think it's a bit flat over here.' That's what fascinates me––to make something I can never be sure of, and no one else can either. I will never know, and no one else will ever know.
Rosenberg: You believe that's the way art is?
De Kooning: That's the way art is.


  1. 1) did the bell ring?
    2) in a sense, the 'merit' of the things I make is none of my business. my works have to satisfy my own criteria, but that's all I can do. or, that's all I require myself to do, the rest is anxiety and fantasy.

  2. rappel, 1. I'd rather not say; this is a great film that maybe you'll see someday.
    2. Most of the time I am satisfied with what I'm doing, but from time to time I'm hit with a wave of vertigo, a very deep doubt about the artistic path I've chosen, even whether it's worth doing at all. Yes, this is anxiety, but I also see it as part of being an artist. It's also similar to some scientific theories, which can never be assertively proved without small amounts of doubt, leading to continuing controversy.

  3. Fabulous post....thank you for sharing ideas and doubts. Yes, that is part of the path. The trick is to embrace both sides of the coin, eh? And be rewarded by the magical discoveries and the small blessings of striking a chord.

  4. Altoon- you have encapsulated in this post an essential quality I know and love in you- your willingness to take the risk.


  5. I truly appreciate your comments, Julie and Sam.

    I realize there's something else I'd like to say about uncertainty and self-doubt: luckily I've never been debilitated by it, but feel, on the contrary, that having doubts is a healthy attitude and that they keep me from simple repetition and acceptance, keep me perfecting the sphere.

  6. We have nothing to sphere but sphere itself!

  7. I have returned to this post a number of times. Beautifully composed, it makes me want to speak and then humbles me into silence. To the point: giving form to what rises within us can be terrifying. Let it ring.

  8. thank you john. Indeed, "let it ring"!